One of the most often shared WhatsApp messages in the past few years is the shrill cry about the shrinking Hindu population in India. The 2011 Census puts the Muslim population at 17.22 crore, or 14.22 per cent. The Hindu population grew in the decade of 1991-2011 at the rate of 1.55 percent, while the Muslim population growth rate was 2.2 percent. The fear about Hindus becoming a minority in India has the basis in this statistics. However, in the decade from 1991-2001, the growth rate of Hindu population was 1.8 per cent and that of Muslims were 2.6 per cent. The decline in the growth rate for Hindus was 0.25 per cent and that for Muslims was 0.4 per cent. This is because of increasing literacy among all groups.
Since the Muslim community started from a lower base in literacy levels, the increase in the literacy rates among Muslims was also sharper and hence the fall in the growth rate among the community higher in comparison. The sharp fall in the growth rate of Muslims in comparison to Hindus is conveniently forgotten by divisive groups. Even if we assume the unlikely scenario of the growth rates remaining the same as that of 2011 till 2061, when the Indian population will reach its peak of 173.03 crore, Muslims would be 29.24 crore or 16.89 per cent of the Indian population. This is not going to make India another Afghanistan as claimed by those who spread paranoia. After 2061, the UN estimates that the Indian population would enter the negative population growth.
While this fear-mongering may suit the political agendas for some, there is another population time bomb ticking. It is the explosive population growth, irrespective of the religion in some of the northern states. In the past four decades, the states below the Vindhyas have witnessed a demographic revolution. It started with Kerala taking the lead, followed by Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. These states have been successful in bringing down the population growth. In 1970, all the states of India had almost the same population growth. Between 1961 and 1971, 21 states had population growth between 20 and 30 per cent, 13 states saw a population growth of over 30 per cent and only one state witnessed a growth less than 20 per cent. The 2011 Census revealed that between 2001 and 2011, only 13 states had a decennial population growth of between 20 and 30 per cent, and all of them are in the less developed, highly populated areas of northern India.
In the decade between the 1961 and 1971 census, Kerala and Bihar had similar rates of population growth. In fact, Kerala, which had started investing heavily in health and education in the 1960s, saw an increase in population growth in the decade between 1961-1971. Kerala grew by 26.29 per cent during 1961-71, while Bihar’s population grew by 20.9 per cent during this period. By 2001-2011, the situation had rapidly changed. In this decade, Kerala’s population growth was 4.86 percent, while Bihar’s numbers grew by 25 percent. The country’s population grew by 17.64 percent during this period. So, demographically, Bihar is four decades behind Kerala. In 1971, the four southern states, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and the undivided Andhra Pradesh had 24.8 per cent of the Indian population. In 2011, the population of the five southern states declined to 20.66 per cent and is falling steadily.
The Total Fertility Rate (TFR), which is the number of children born per woman, is an indicator of how well a society is controlling its population growth. A TFR of 2.1 is called Replacement Level Fertility and if this is maintained for a few decades, the population would stabilise. Anything less than this would eventually lead to a fall in the population. The latest available data indicates that Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala have fertility rates of 1.7, 1.7, 1.6, 1.8 and 1.8. While Bihar has a fertility rate of 3.3, Uttar Pradesh 3.1 and Madhya Pradesh 2.8. The TFR is falling in prosperous states such as Punjab and western states such as Maharashtra. However, northern India maintains a high TFR.
The above statistics is given not to imitate the paranoia about the Islamic population explosion in India. A population explosion is indeed happening before our eyes, but that has nothing to do with religion. It has to do with social progress and the priorities that respective state governments set for their population. The centre of gravity of India is towards the Northern region. To put things in perspective, the population of UP was 23 crore in 2018 and that of the five southern states put together was 26.78 crore.
This demographic tilt would lead to huge cultural shift in the country. Aided by the population explosion in UP, Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the percentage of people speaking Hindi in the country has increased from less than 34 per cent in 1947 to 43.63 per cent, while other languages have declined. Just as the Islamophobic group is spreading paranoia about the overwhelming growth of Muslims in India, this unequal shift in population would be exploited by the regional parties of the South to create paranoia about the hegemony of Hindi. Understanding that unequal population growth is the result of the difference in social conditions is paramount in tackling such divisive thoughts. Unless the governments of these states get their priorities right and improve the literacy and educational levels of their people, this skewed population explosion would remain a millstone around the neck of India that would drown us all.
(Anand Neelakantan is the author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy and can be contated at firstname.lastname@example.org)